'CAN WE GET ALONG?'

Something is happening in Dubuque. It's not often that we'll pause to tell you that; this is a city that the flyover culture usually ignores except to say that we don't edit for the proverbial little old lady who lives there. But now Dubuque has launched a remarkable social experiment, one that deserves serious attention. At a time when the nation is becoming a multiethnic stew-delicious but prone to causing heartburn-can a 98 percent white town attract and keep black, Asian and Hispanic families?

Dubuque, Iowa, didn't happily set about to answer that question. The turmoil began three years ago when two teenagers burned a black family's garage. Then a group of well-intentioned local residents wheeled into action, demanding a public purging of the racism in their midst. Over time, several foolish young white men--chronic offenders known to the police as "our little assholes"--burned crosses on hilltops and painted KKK slogans on school walls. The strife threatened both the city's wholesome image and its business prospects. Marches were held, son turned against father, neighbor against neighbor. Outside agitators, from the Klan and the national media, showed up to reap their profits. Finally, last February, civic and industrial leaders laid calming hands on the situation Dubuque's noble experiment began.

In a town of 58,000, with only 331 black residents, the battle lines were unusual. "This isn't about blacks, it's about whites learning to live in a diverse society," says Karla Braig, a college English instructor who last year chaired the Dubuque Human Rights Commission. "We have to settle this among ourselves."

Dubuque has set no timetable for its plan, which is intended to connect local employers with minority job applicants who live elsewhere. Proponents fear footdragging. Opponents think the city is ignoring problems closer to home. Progress is still a matter of hope. But a small city is grappling with the American dilemma as phrased by Rodney King. Can we all get along? Here's the view through five prisms:

Have I sold out? The question haunts Jack Hanson, an office worker who was among the first whites to protest the cross burnings. He worked feverishly on an integration task force that last year proposed a plan to bring 100 minority families to Dubuque. And his rewards, such as they were, came in the middle of the night when his phone rang and voices would whisper: "Nigger lover!"

When the business leaders took over the effort, they invited him to join the new, modulated Council for Diversity. Hanson was suspicious of the country-club types, but he signed on. So far, he likes the business leaders' emphasis on fewer words, more deeds. "There's a question whether they stepped in to put a spin on things or because of a deeply held belief," Hanson says. "But I don't care. This has opened their eyes."

At 54, Hanson, a Dubuque native, has been part of a small band that has worked for decades to end the city's racial insularity. Much of this group dates its awakening to seminars conducted since the 1970s by the Rev. C. T. Vivian, an Atlantan who had worked with Martin Luther King Jr. Whenever Dubuquers pleaded innocence Vivian would tell them, "You're racist to the core. Keep working on it."

When the crosses blazed last year, Hanson and his allies found themselves suddenly joined by thousands of Dubuquers who had always ignored them. Given the menacing alternative, diversity didn't sound so bad. Dubuque businesses began passing out black and white lapel ribbons. Hecklers shouted down a carpetbagging white supremacist from Mississippi; as he led a brief march, church bells startled him with a thunderous rendition of "We Shall Overcome." Last May it took 150 police in riot gear to protect an Arkansas Ku Klux Klan leader from hundreds of screaming protesters. A bigger crowd held a simultaneous rally for racial unity: 5,000 people gathered in a park to sing songs, light candles and listen to children read messages of hope.

Hanson, who had always seen the same 100 faces at liberal protests, was amazed. For once he's on a winning side. "The activists awakened this community," says Catherine Dunn, president of Clarke College. "Dubuque can never go back."

It was damage control that first motivated the president of Dubuque's First National Bank. Meeting with other business leaders, J. Bruce Meriwether fretted over a situation flying out of control. Racism was a moral issue, yes, but the city's economy was at stake. Dubuque had attracted several new industries and wanted more; who would relocate to a city in turmoil? Robert H. Wahlert pointedly told the group that every product his big meatpacking company ships has Dubuque's name on its label. Since the troubles had begun, some shoppers were refusing to buy his meat.

The 13-member Council for Diversity Meriwether now chairs is a model of multiculturalism, but there's no mistaking who calls the shots. Showing that at the very least they have a knack for marketing, council members replaced the original integration plan with a one-page mission statement. Gone is the 100-family quota. Gone, too, is "integration"; the goal now is "cultural diversity."

Meriwether talks expansively about the pressing need for minority employment, open housing and educational programs to inoculate the young against bigotry. Dubuque's economy will survive its scare, but that is no longer enough for Meriwether. "We have to see that there are more minority citizens in this community," he says with palpable conviction. "There won't be an end to this effort."

Meriwether looks to the day when Dubuque hosts a regional diversity summit to help others avoid the agony Dubuque has suffered. But the real test of his resolve won't come until families start to arrive. If recruiting goes smoothly, that could occur within months.

Karmen Hall Miller thought she understood her new job when she stepped off the plane from California: to help a city change. As the Council for Diversity's executive director, she has warmed to the community. Unexpectedly, she also serves as its all-purpose minority. During her first few weeks, 20 civic groups have asked her to join their boards. Police officers conscript her to talk with minority kids in scrapes with the law. She's also met with high-school students, one of whom informed her that most blacks are on welfare. Hall Miller explained that most welfare recipients are white. Then she asked the student to have lunch in her home.

Meriwether's group chose Hall Miller over 90 other applicants. She was raised in mostly white San Jose, Calif., and educated at Tennessee State, a black university in Nashville. Most recently she helped implement diversity programs for a defense contractor. Now Hall Miller must help companies seek out and hire minority job applicants.

She's not alone. Volunteer committees are working on everything from finding housing to mediating unexpected disputes. But suspicions about planned integration linger, and not just among whites. Hazel O'Neal, an African-American who served on the integration task force, says Dubuque wants to change its image, not its soul. Hall Miller will find, O'Neal says, that in Dubuque, "whites don't listen to blacks and men don't listen to women. No one's going to listen but the converted." Hall Miller, who makes it clear that she is nobody's window dressing, disagrees: "If this is such a god-awful community, why did people come together, commit themselves to change and hire someone like me?"

If supporters of integration foresee a richly diversified city, Elizabeth Mihalakis envisions something else: an influx of strangers soaking up already meager resources. Mihalakis heads a neighborhood council in a poor area where many of the city's few minorities live. Her neighbors--white, black and brown alike--desperately need employment and housing opportunities. "Why not help people who are here?" she asks. "Why recruit new people and give them special favors?" And she worries about safety. If the arrival of more minorities sparks a violent reaction, her depressed and densely settled street is more likely to suffer than banker Meriwether's. "The people behind this are using the people of color," she says, "and they're using the rest of us, too."

Notions like these make integration proponents uncomfortable. Many of the righteous would rather dismiss the naysayers as antediluvians who can barely keep their white sheets pressed. No matter that Mihalakis has a long record of volunteer service to the poor of all races, or that she welcomes black and Hispanic children who play with her own. "Nobody wants to hear us talk about the need for housing and jobs down here," she says. "They'd rather just call us all racists."

Critics of the integration plan fall into three camps. Mihalakis typifies those who object less to diversity than to having it imposed from above. Pure bigotry motivates some Dubuquers, as the ugly racial incidents attest. But fear of the unknown drives many opponents. "Do not call us unChristian or segregation minded," one woman wrote to the local newspaper. "We are just scared!"

Mihalakis is beginning to be heard. In October she won a strong new role for low-income neighborhoods in deciding how city hall doles out federal grants. City housing officials say the pressure she's applied has accelerated community efforts to create hundreds of new apartments for low-income families. Those developments don't address all of Mihalakis's complaints. But, like the integration plan she opposes, they're a start.

After each of the cross burnings, angry citizens held a protest vigil where it had occurred. One crowd included Michael Lightfoot Sr., a bus-system worker. He had been raised in poverty and pulled out of school by his father at the age of 16. He haltingly told 200 people gathered on a hillside that police had charged his son with arson for cross burning, an act he condemned. "This is my community, too," he murmured. He didn't reveal that both he and his son the white supremacist are part Cherokee. Or that he had called the cops to report that lumber he stored at his house might have been used to build crosses.

Dubuque is so riveted by the battle for its future that no one has bothered to tote up the casualties. Lightfoot Sr. cares little about the fine points of diversity plans. He does care about fairness. His life's goal was to build the father-son ties he missed as a child. "I figured I'd watch Mike get married, have his kids, and we'd do things together," he says.

A few weeks back, Lightfoot and his son, now a convicted cross burner serving two years' probation, broke off their tattered relationship. "Our lives have gone completely the opposite of what I had hoped," Lightfoot says, his eyes reddening. "He'll learn about respect, but will it be when I'm dead? Will I ever hear the words?"

College president Dunn's aspiration is the Lightfoot family's lament: Dubuque can never go back. How fast it will move forward is Dubuque's dilemma-and that of the nation.